Realism in gaming is something that’s blossomed over the years, and that’s to be expected. As any medium grows and evolves, it will start to reflect the real world more and more. This trend can be observed in various art forms throughout history, yet there’s always been a place for deviation, a place where the realistic takes a back seat, and surrealism takes over. This, in my humble opinion, is where gaming shines, and it’s a shame to see the medium ignoring the outlandish in favor of the expected.
The problem I find most troubling with realism in games, is that video games are inherently unrealistic. By definition, even, video games must adhere to some sense of absurdity. In Uncharted, no matter how realistic and convincing the characters and environments may be, the fact is that Nathan Drake can take a hell of a lot of damage, and is a little too good with every gun known to man. In Call of Duty, if realism is such a coveted aspect of the series, why does your character only bleed out of his eyes, and why is damage rarely permanent? The “game” part of these games keeps them from being truly realistic, and in turn makes them even less believable. Characters like Link, or even Master Chief, are believable in even the most absurd situations, as the worlds that they belong to don’t try to conform to the world that we live in.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy realism in games. I’m certainly able to enjoy games that attempt to emulate the real world, but on the whole I find it much easier to be enveloped by a game the more detached it is from reality.
The recently released Alice: Madness Returns is a fantastic example of this. While it’s critical and commercial reception was less than enthusiastic, I enjoyed it more than a lot of games that I’ve played this year. The art design was phenomenal and extraordinarily unique, with characters that hinted at the truly sensational, even when the game shifted from it’s Wonderland setting into it’s Victorian England “real world” setting.
Games like World of Warcraft take on an exaggerated art style as well, and developers like Double Fine are notorious for outlandish and bizarre games, and even titles that didn’t fare quite as well such as Brutal Legend are still memorable simply because of the brilliance of the art design and characters.
So what is it, exactly, that sets these sorts of game apart? There are many games like Resident Evil 5 or Gears of War that clearly favor a more realistic edge, that aren’t exclusively realistic in their presentation or content. Yet, those games are still very clearly lacking in surrealism or any real imagination. It doesn’t take much to take a standard war scenario and throw some aliens or zombies in.
No, what separates these two types of games is that the surreal and imaginative ones suggest exploration by design – they are the sorts of games that you’ll get lost in even when you’re not playing them. They are games that you’ll dream about. This can be achieved with something incredibly simple, like the Amp Cliffs and the Screaming Wall from Brutal Legend, to the wonderfully varied design of Madness Returns.
Both of those games feature unique and differing environments, with Brutal Legend ranging from a Spider’s Den filled with guitar string webbing, to an ancient ruin filled jungle, and with Madness Returns proudly featuring macabre levels that dabble in Steampunk, ruined castles, and even a traditional Japanese garden. Subsequently there are entire series, like Dragon Quest, that rely heavily on a very specific type of design. Much of the charm and quirkiness of Dragon Quest is achieved by Akira Toriyama, the primary art director behind the series, and the games have a sense of whimsy that is immediately recognizable because of his art.
To be very clear, I’m not suggesting that a game can just throw on some nice cartoony visuals and call it good. Video games are a two part deal, and good gameplay is key in any game. But the fact is, good gameplay isn’t that hard to achieve these days. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any sort of truly innovative gameplay mechanics introduced in a game, and the industry has gotten to the point where many games seem the same.
So why not do something new once in a while? I understand that consumers can be a fickle audience, and that the success of a product relies heavily on familiarity, but being overly familiar can be just as detrimental as being overly strange, and there’s a middle ground that is too often ignored by developers. We’ve come a long way since the days of Pong and Pac-Man, and the design of a game has much more to offer than to simply be a vehicle for the gameplay.
This stance on gaming, of course, has a lot to do with why I play video games. Like many people, I enjoy the escapism that gaming offers. I’ve found that sense of being elsewhere is rarely achieved by games that rely heavily on realism. Imagination and creativity begets imagination and creativity, and no matter how fun or well tuned a game is, if it doesn’t offer any sort of visual pop or stimulation, it likely won’t evoke a reaction from the player. The times that I’ve truly marveled at a game haven’t been when it most resembles reality, but rather when it presented something truly unique.
The sad fact, however, is that people largely like what they know, and with a medium that is as expensive as video games, it can be difficult to take a chance on something different. However, one must remember that in it’s infancy, the entire gaming industry was something different. Gaming wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for people taking a chance on it, so why ignore something that could be a change for the better? Why encourage a hobby we love to dry out, and become stale?
As a popular medium, gaming is on the rise, and with that raised awareness will come better and better technology. With these advancements, though, I hope that we continue to see games that try to make us think, games that speak with their visuals and are unique and full of imagination. Photorealism may very well be the way of the future, but to quote the aforementioned Alice: Madness Returns, “Photographs are a kind of imitation. A great painter captures a true likeness. The camera helps an amateur come close.”